There are only two people left in the world who understand a nearly extinct language. And they won’t speak to each other.
That’s the premise behind “I Dream in Another Language,” an intoxicating and elliptical film from Mexican director Ernesto Contreras and written by his brother Carlos. The film has its Madison premiere this Friday through Sunday at the Union South Marquee Theatre, 1208 W. Dayton St. Admission is free.
Two old men, Isauro (José Manuel Poncelis) and Evaristo (Eligio Meléndez) are the last speakers of Zikril, a dialect once spoken by an indigenous people who lived deep in the jungles of Mexico. (Zikril is fictional and invented for the film.)
Before the language dies with them, a researcher named Martin (Fernando Álvarez Rebeil) comes to their village hoping to document Zikril and preserve it. But he finds that Isauro and Evaristo, best friends as young men, now hate each other and haven’t spoken to each other in almost a half-century. If he wants to save the language, Martin has to save their friendship.
In flashbacks, we see that Isauro and Evaristo were involved in a love triangle with a beautiful young woman, a triangle that at first seems simple but then reveals itself to be much more complicated. In a sense, the language they share, but refuse to speak, symbolizes the secrets they keep but refuse to discuss.
Language is best understood as a metaphor in the film, a way of looking at the world that, in the case of Zikril, is fast disappearing in the face of globalization. While the young generations aren’t interested in using Zikril, Isauro’s granddaughter (Fatima Molina) makes her living teaching English lessons on the radio to rural Mexicans who want to leave the jungle and seek their fortune.
But when one language is learned, another is lost, with Zikril signifying a way of interacting with the natural world that is disappearing. In a nice touch, the film subtitles the lines spoken in Spanish, but not the ones spoken in Zikril, giving us the sense of something unknowable.
“I Dream in Another Language” is a dream-like film, and its poetic meditations on culture and language are more compelling than its plot, or a romantic subplot between Martin and Isauro’s granddaughter that feels tacked-on.
One powerful, surreal image the film returns to is a cave Isauro visits deep in the forest, where he can hear the dead spirits of his friends and family. There, at least, they speak his language.